One of these guys provided a lifelong memory for me. (Courtesy photo)
I cannot figure out exactly why there is this urge within some of us to head out into the wilderness alone. Lord knows, there are compelling reasons not to. But the pull is there just the same.
Jesus spent 40 days wandering the Judean wilderness before the start of his earthly ministry. Aside from battling the elements of the desert, he also encountered Satan (and you thought your bear encounter was spooky).
More recently, there are the tragic and near tragic tales of young men who felt compelled to test themselves in the wild by themselves. Chris McCandless made it a lifestyle before getting in over his head in Alaska. His solo foray there famously cost him his life. Aron Ralston took on Blue John Canyon alone in eastern Utah’s wilderness, had a bad slip and lost a forearm but lived to tell the tale.
And yet we still go.
It’s a well-worn practice. Vision quests are a part of some Native American tribal customs. And then there’s the walkabouts of the Aborigines of Australia. People lose themselves, on purpose, hoping to find themselves. Or something like that. But there is something about the wild spaces of the world that call out to us, as if being in their midst we will magically find the answers to the things that trouble us, and by going alone, there won’t be the noises of civilization or even other people to distract you from what the wilderness is trying to say. Many a prophet has walked into the wild only to later emerge with some truth for the masses. Even more just go to test themselves, find themselves or otherwise learn something new to break free from some unseen force of the mundane.
I’d never compare any of my personal journeys to guys like Ralston, McCandless or any number of others who have tackled legitimate solo adventures. But the pull is there just the same. A little over a year-and-a-half ago, I found myself troubled by a confluence of personal crises that pointed me toward the desire to find my own personal redoubt where I could think, reflect and regroup. I happened upon a few free days and some time alone, then set my sights on one of the few wild places left in Oklahoma – the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and its rugged patch of weathered granite peaks, scrub oaks and cedar called Charon’s Garden. I’ve been gradually exploring the refuge’s trails and mountains, seeing anything from gentle paths to some of the most technical rock climbing this side of the Rocky Mountains.
So I gathered my gear, loaded the car and took my demons along for a solo day trip I hoped would end with me scrambling to the top of Sunset Peak, a mellower but significant summit on the western edge of the wildlife refuge.
I’d like to say I did all the things you should do when heading out solo. Some things I did – making sure people knew where I was going and how long I’d be gone – but there were a few other details I neglected, like checking the weather. I eyeballed it as I left, grateful for cloud cover that would take the bite out of the early summer heat. Unfortunately, the eye test did not reveal much about the massive storms rolling in from the west that would dump near-record rainfall in the places where I planned to go. Blissfully ignorant, I was on my way.
The drive had me fight monsoon-like dumps almost the entire way, letting up only when I got a little closer to my destination. Disembarking from my car and gearing up at the trailhead I was pleased to see that there didn’t appear to be too many other people around. Apparently, the weather had scared off most would-be hikers. Clouds kept the temperatures down in the low 80s, about as good as I could expect in early June.
Surprisingly, I did run into a group of hikers – mixed generations, with their leader checking out a field book of wild birds he’d hoped that he and the others in his group would see. One teenage girl piped up about seeing a buffalo blocking their way, but they were headed back up the trail anyway. I knew they wouldn’t be going my way – most likely, they were heading south, then east through the popular Boulder Field hike. I was going west where far fewer people tended to go.
One of the things I’ve learned is that as much as I like my solitude, I work better with a partner or in a team. Little things that I might overlook when it comes to orienteering and route-finding are masked when you have a buddy. Not so when you’re alone. I was amazed at how many turns I missed, and how I ended up having to turn around several times just to get back on track.
It seemed as if I made one wrong turn after another, heading toward the Boulder Field, only to retrace my steps and re-examine which way would most likely take me back to where I needed to go.
Eventually I spotted the path that would lead to a familiar creek bed crossing which would lead me to the route that would hopefully take me west toward Sunset Peak. But more fun was on its way.
The route ahead was a mix of thick woodlands and more barren hilltops, which under different circumstances would not be a problem other than the repeated elevation loss and gain. But the thunder was getting louder, meaning the lightning was getting closer. This wasn’t as much of a problem down low, but on ridgelines and hilltops that were ahead, I would be the highest object around. Getting tagged by a thunderbolt was not my idea of a good time.
The rain was also starting to intensify. That wasn’t so much of a bother as the lightning, but nonetheless, standing out in the open getting dumped on while waiting for the storm to pass was not very appealing. So I hunkered down in the woods in the driest place I could find and waited.
I found myself pulled in a couple of directions. I wanted to get a move on, as the hike to Sunset was still mostly ahead of me, and seeing as I’d never been there I wanted plenty of time to make sure I’d arrive in a timely fashion. But there was something very soothing about listening to the rain hitting the foliage and my rain slicker while being interrupted by rolling thunder. Despite the rain, birds were still calling out from their own little shelters among the trees.
It was in this type of thick woods that I had a close encounter with a buffalo.
As the thunder moved on, I decided it was time to get moving again. This portion of the trail is a tangle of thickets, blackjack oak and other foliage, all of which was in its full spring glory in terms of color and lushness. This tends to dampen noises, which were further muffled by the steady percussion of light rain hitting the leaves. In this environment, I would discover that I was not alone when it came to seeking refuge within the woods.
Ahead of me I could see the trail getting ready to cross a familiar creek bed that would lead to the prospector trail which would take me toward Sunset Peak. But it was what I didn’t see that would give me what ended up being the most memorable part of the trip.
I didn’t see it first. I heard it. A loud, angry snort to my right, followed by a flash of brown and black that burst through the woods. I turned quickly and wheeled, blurting out an abrupt “whoa” before realizing I’d just survived a near miss. Up the trail from where I’d just come, a buffalo galloped, then turned and stared at me from about 50 feet away.
It took me a little while to register what actually happened. I had a “wildlife encounter” that could have gone a lot worse than it did. Being alone and getting gored by a buffalo was not what I came here for. Only then did my heart rate rise just a little. The two of us eyeballed each other for a few more moments and, satisfied the buffalo was just as freaked out as I was, I figured it was safe to keep going.
You might be wondering how I somehow rolled up on a 1,200-pound animal that was practically in front of me. I find myself amazed at my inability to spot these creatures sooner than I do (this is a long-running problem), but in this case I think there are good reasons why I stumbled upon the beast unaware of its presence. The underbrush was quite thick and in full leaf, and the buffalo was nestled pretty deep within it. Its brown and black fur may as well have been tree trunks and shadows for all I knew, and it was staying quite still and quiet until the last moment. It’s not much of an excuse, I suppose, but for now that’s what I’m going with.
It brings to mind an essential truth when it comes to wilderness hiking and trekking when you’re on your own. Had this thing plowed me into the ground before running off, having people around would have been a huge asset. Someone could tend to my injuries or go for help. But on my own, any mishap – with the buffalo, or a fall, or an untimely lightning strike – could be lethal. I would have been forced to drag my way back to the trailhead, injuries and all, provided I could do anything at all.
This may sound strange, but that is part of the allure of going solo. It’s all about your own wits carrying you through. The preparations you make beforehand, the experience you fall back on and the hope that you make the right decisions when problems arise are the only things you have to go on because there’s no chance to rely on anyone’s counsel. You’re a committee of one, and right or wrong, every decision is final. Even when you do everything right, dumb luck can strike – an untimely slip or, let’s say, a wildlife encounter gone awry. Stuff happens, and when it happens to a person who is alone, the danger factor increases significantly.
Off trail, I went up to take a look around and found this cool outcrop.
Having avoided anything more than a scare from the buffalo, I decided to keep going. When I finally started back west again, I ended up taking a side trail – not the main trail – to the top of a ridge that was clearly off the path where I wanted to go. Another delay was at hand, but the view from the ridge was actually worth experiencing. Atop the ridge was a beautiful rocky outcrop that would have made for an excellent scramble. Being higher up, I was able to spot the trail I was supposed to be following. So score one for getting up high to take a better look around.
Unfortunately, the weather was starting to deteriorate again. Thunder began to get louder and the rains were returning, and being that high on an exposed perch was something that needed to be remedied fast. Rather than go back the way I came, I chose to boulder-hop down the steep west face of the ridge and rejoin the main trail.
The rain intensified, and waves of thunder and lightning came and went. I came to a part of the trail where I had to opportunity to either turn south toward Crab Eyes, a distinct minor peak whose main features are two delicately perched boulders atop a slim granite column, or continue west following a creek bed and accompanying trail that would get me to Sunset Peak.
But looking at the time and the weather, I knew the jig was up. So many delays had already put me behind, and I was still a ways away from Sunset Peak. I would be going across terrain I’d never seen, then would have faced doing some route-finding to get to Sunset’s summit.
More problematic was the fact that Sunset’s bald, granite summit was high above anything else around it, making it a wonderful place for lightning strikes to gather. Scrambling up slick, slabby granite slopes only to get turned into a human lightning rod didn’t sound like a good way to cap off the trip. I decided to bail on Sunset Peak, turn south, and make my new target a peaceful spot just under the summit tower at Crab Eyes.
I’ve written about Crab Eyes many times before. It’s one of my favorite places in all of the Wichtas for a couple of reasons. First, it’s just an unusual rock formation, a place where time, wind and water has formed this rocky outcrop into something that resembles the head of a hermit crab, with two massive boulders on top serving as the “eyes” of the crab. You can see Crab Eyes from a long ways off, and it is one of the signature profiles of the range.
Crab Eyes also provides a really great place to stop and rest. You can hike up to the base of its summit tower and find a sheltered, flat place to kick back and relax for a bit and be treated to an incredible view of the eastern reaches of Charon’s Garden. The combination of thick woods and rocky summits makes for an amazing panorama.
My new destination wouldn’t be novel, but it would be pleasant. The rain let up enough to where the wildlife started to come out again, mostly in the form of birds. Breezes whistled through the trees and over the grasses as bird songs could be heard faintly nearby. Not many people go this far into Charon’s Garden, and the rain had shooed away the few hikers who started their day here. My mind began to clear as now I no longer had to think about route-finding, buffalo or the weather. Also absent were the man-made noises that were typical of my day: phones, cars, the television and voices of other people. None of that was here right then. Instead, I finally had time to stop, think and reflect on life.
A look at Crab Eyes from the north.
At that point, I reached into my pack, grabbed a little trail food and some water. I munched on a nutrition bar and sipped my drink, looking around and just listening. There was conversation all around me, but more of the natural kind between animals as well as between the elements. With the weather holding up and a little time to spare I reclined on the ground, head resting on my pack and dozed for a few minutes, letting the ambient noises of the wilderness lull me to sleep. Let me tell you, a good 20-minute nap under the skies is about as awesome as it gets.
After a time, I’d gotten the rest I needed, had some food in my belly and was ready to get moving again. About then was when the weather decided it had had enough of cooperating with me.
As I made my way down the staircase part of the trail leaving Crab Eyes, the rain started anew, at first pretty light, but intensifying as time went on. Shortly after getting off the hill it turned into an outright downpour.
I knew that dry creek beds could turn into raging torrents in a matter of minutes. All it takes is saturated ground and heavy rainfall over a sustained period of time. I wasn’t too worried about it out here, but I kept my eyes and ears open just the same, particularly around creek bed crossings.
At that moment, the entire character of the Wichitas began to change. Close to the ground, the established trails – particularly the ones going up or down hillsides – turned into fast flowing creeks. There was no avoiding the water, and within minutes my clothes and boots were soaked through. This would be the last hike for the venerable boots I wore that day, as they’d given up the ghost on any pretense of water resistance long ago. Today, they’d go out in a blaze of glory, sloshing through one of the hardest rainstorms to hit southwest Oklahoma in decades.
So I went with it. There was no point looking for dry ground to walk on because there wasn’t any. All of it was pretty much covered in standing water except for the granite slabs and rocks that poked through the soil.
But what struck me was the appearance of the surrounding countryside. I’ve written about it before, and sometimes words fail me when I try to describe it. There was something about how the sheets of rain changed the colors and contours of the range at that point.
The rain erased much of my sense of depth, meaning that ridgelines and the profiles of higher mountains melded into one continuous, jagged skyline. The colors of the mountains – usually a combination of pink and gray — turned into something closer to silver, almost icy. Boulders perched atop the summits of these well-worn peaks now transformed their outlines into the spiny back of some mythological monster from ancient times. Had the temperatures not been in the lower 80s, you’d almost think I’d stepped into another time, perhaps into the misty realms of Nordic lore.
In that moment, no one was seeing what I saw. No one was hearing the rain pound the range or thunder echoing off the canyon walls that surrounded me. No one in their right mind was out there. I’m sure they’d long bagged it, heading for their cars or the shelter of some nearby restaurant. This moment, this intense, magical slice of time, was mine. As much as I would have loved to have shared it with someone, there was no one who would be willing to be there with me. The things I’m telling you now barely give insight to it. All I can tell you is that I felt extremely blessed to be there. These images, sounds and smells are burned into my memory for as long as God will allow me to breathe.
Some people might wonder why I’d go out here alone, and what I just described is your answer. The experiences, and I do mean all of them, are so much more vivid when everything is on you. That buffalo encounter? Yeah, I won’t be forgetting that anytime soon. The quiet minutes at Crab Eyes and the reflection I had there begs me to go back. Seeing the range swathed in rain was like looking at a new bride, unveiling herself in her wedding dress for the first time for everyone to see. With people, it would have been good (provided they wouldn’t whine too much about the weather). Alone, with only yourself and your surroundings, it’s just a much more visceral experience.
In the end, I retraced my steps back through the thickets (and thus the locale of my buffalo encounter), taking care to make lots of noise so whatever was out there knew I was coming. I was soaked, tired, hungry and happy. I can remember when I first wrote about it, summing it up thusly:
“It was at that time I realized how lucky I was. At that moment, legions of people were at work. Others were at home watching TV. Some were in jail. Or overseas at war. I was out here, reveling in what was, for me, a unique experience.”
Returning to the trailhead, two women parked there rolled down their window, asking me if I’d seen anyone on the trail. I guess they were waiting on a couple of boys who’d gone up the Elk Mountain trail.
I told them I hadn’t. I hadn’t seen a soul.
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